Some Thoughts about “Third Way” Churches

A reflection by Lindsey

As I’ve been hanging around Twitter, I’ve seen a number of people asking questions like, “What does it mean to be a Third Way Church?” The question comes after a Southern Baptist church in California decided to adopt Ken Wilson’s approach to questions of LGBT people in the Church. Wilson proposes a Third Way where the hallmarks include “welcoming and embracing” LGBT people rather than adopting an “open and affirming” position. From what I can tell, many of the Third Way churches are trying to shift thinking found in Evangelical churches. It’s worth noting that Wilson’s book is arguing for a different approach than a Roman Catholic documentary by the same title. I have a soft-spot for what Wilson is trying to do because Wilson pastors a Vineyard church. In college, I used to attend a Vineyard church before coming into my current Christian tradition. A significant number of my close friends identify strongly with Evangelical traditions, and my reflection here should be read as coming from the perspective of an outsider musing on different things I’ve observed.

Culture war issues invite binary thinking. Many commentators say, “You either affirm gay marriage or you don’t,” or “You teach homosexuality is a sin or you don’t.” Within the binaries, I think it’s fair to say that there is no middle ground. However, I am no stranger to the conversation about LGBT people in the Church. I’d posit that approaches like Third Way and Generous Spaciousness are trying to move people away from asking binary questions about LGBT Christians. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t had any time to actually read Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation yet, and I don’t intend to describe his exact approach in this post. Nevertheless, I think Third Way approaches are becoming increasingly common.

Many evangelical churches have a Third Way style approach to questions of baptism. Whether a particular congregation would prefer to perform adult baptisms, many churches argue rather strongly for the idea that a person should only be baptized once. If a person has grown up in the church and was baptized as an infant, many congregations accept the newcomer through a letter of transfer. Some churches ask every newcomer to meet with the pastor, choosing to acknowledge a new member through a public affirmation of faith. Churches that strongly prefer adult baptisms frequently perform infant dedications or adopt a posture of quietly looking away when parents visit a church associated with members of their extended family to have the child baptized. Equally, it’s common for churches that have infant baptism to wait for parents to make a decision about whether and when a child should be baptized. There’s generosity in giving people space to discern their timing.

Relative to questions of LGBT Christians, I think many Third Way evangelical churches consider the status of various newcomers to their communities. Has an LGBT couple been married in another Christian tradition? Is civil same-sex marriage available in communities around the church? Does an LGBT couple have children they want to raise in the Christian faith? From what I can see of authors advocating a Third Way, these authors would say, “Let these families come and participate in the life of our church.” The communities generally strive to maintain uniform expectations for everyone in the church. If membership requires serving on a ministry team, then LGBT families are welcome to serve on a ministry team. If pastors ask people to participate using their various gifts and talents, then the pastors consider everyone’s gifts and talents. If the church has a newsletter that gets mailed, perhaps the church includes the names of everyone in the household on the address label. The choice to receive everyone who comes through the door with open arms seems to be a driving motivator of churches to adopt a Third Way approach.

Third Way approaches to certain issues do seem to be remarkably viable over the long term, at least in certain communities. I lived in England when I worked towards my Master’s degree. As such, I was invited to attend services at a lot of Church of England parishes. I was rather amazed at how the Anglican church takes a Third Way approach to the elements of communion. I remember attending one service where the person on my left was a strident defender of the belief that the Eucharistic elements became the body and blood of Christ while the person on my right thought the wafer was a poor substitute for Passover bread. Personally, I was experiencing a huge deal of cognitive dissonance. Things started to click together when the celebrant offered the Eucharistic prayers that had contained wordings very similar to the following:

“Accept our praises, heavenly Father, through thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, and as we follow his example and obey his command, grant that by the power of thy Holy Spirit these gifts of bread and wine may be unto us his body and his blood…

Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, we remember his offering of himself made once for all upon the cross; we proclaim his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; we look for the coming of his kingdom and with this bread and this cup we make the memorial of Christ thy Son our Lord.”

In the wordings of the prayers, the theology was communicated as body and blood AND bread and wine. It seemed to me like the people on my right and on my left were self-selecting what parts of the prayers to pay attention to. As I queried different celebrants, I consistently heard answers that the English people had quite enough of Protestants killing Catholics and vice versa, and that the current approach allows people from different perspectives to worship together peacefully. These clerics thought it was admirable to bring previously warring people to the same table and to have a wide tent. While I can see where these clerics were coming from, I was still inclined to look at the situation more than a bit cross-eyed and would posit that most Catholic and Orthodox believers would resist this line of reasoning. One challenge of Third Way approaches is that they compel Christian traditions to determine where there is and is not space for disputable matters.

Suffice it to say, I do think Third Way churches are welcoming a great deal of liturgical soul-searching (for lack of a better word). How do these churches understand marriage? Might they take an approach of answering questions in the particular (i.e. Should we extend our blessing on these two men to share life together?) rather than saying, “Yes, we absolutely affirm the rights of all LGBT people to get married in our church.” Would a pastor consent to officiating a service held in a venue other than the church? Might the church adopt an approach of providing LGBT couples with legal counsel to navigate different ways of recognizing the relationship? Does the church want to dive deeply into exploring visions of celibate vocations that can be truly life-giving? Would the church consider crafting rites to allow people to enter a celibate vocation?

Here at A Queer Calling, we’re constantly talking about the need to help LGBT people discover truly life-giving vocations that empower them to live into the fullness of the Gospel. In my opinion, churches seeking a Third Way are trying to transition from a legal binary of “Yes/No” into a more holistic view of Christian discipleship. I think churches with a traditional sexual ethic do well to look at the fullness of their traditions in an effort to move beyond mandating LGBT people to a “vocation of No.” I also think that churches with a modern, liberal sexual ethic might consider listening to people seeking guidance in discerning vocation. As an observer looking in on the conversations, it seems like many people with a modern, liberal sexual ethic would say that LGBT people should be able to marry without providing any support to LGBT people who want guidance about living a celibate vocation. Likewise, many people with a traditional sexual ethic would say that all LGBT people should either be celibate or enter into opposite-sex marriages without considering the question, “What if a legally married same-sex couple came to my church, encountered Jesus in a real way, and sensed that God was asking them to grow in faith within the context of my Christian tradition?”

I’ve been in communities that I regard as Third Way communities. The Gay Christian Network works tirelessly to ensure that LGBT Christians feel welcome, independent of their conclusions on sexual ethics, providing support to LGBT people with both traditional and progressive sexual ethics as well as those who are still grappling with the questions. As a community, we’re committed to doing life together. Different people make various decisions about what to do in certain situations. However, we also know that every invitation to share life together is considered independently. Passing on one gathering does not mean that a person won’t be at the next. Despite differences in how we approach sexual ethics, we know that we’re diverse in just about every other way imaginable as well. For all of our diverse approaches, we hold in good faith that everyone is interested in growing towards Christ wherever he may lead. I think the community continues to exist because the people gathered constantly assert that as long as we all focus on Christ, we’re going to get even that much closer to living our lives in accordance with His will.

To be sure, there benefits and drawbacks to a Third Way approach. I completely agree that there are some issues where it does not make sense to try and work towards a Third Way. Even in this post, I shared that I am absolutely uncomfortable when communities try to take a Third Way approach to what happens to the Eucharistic elements. However, I do think that there are issues where it can be absolutely beneficial to take a Third Way approach. When communities take a Third Way approach, I see them saying, “You know, as we’re listening to the Holy Spirit together, we seem to be raising many different kinds of pastoral considerations. It’s worth moving prayerfully and humbly towards Christ in the midst of all these questions. We can be okay that we all feel like we’re trying to find our way in a fog. Let’s commit to remaining a community together as we focus on Christ and trust Him to guide us along the way.”

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2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts about “Third Way” Churches

  1. I’m very sure this is not a response your looking for BUT what were you getting your masters for? How was england?!? Was it hard to get into the program?

    • That’s alright. I was reading for an MA in International Development. I absolutely loved England. It was a great place to study. I think every Master’s program tends to be extremely competitive, but I don’t have any idea on the number of people who applied for my program.

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